Poles apart from the truth

2nd November 2007 at 00:00
Bitter teacher-bashing in the press about low standards paid scant regard to the facts.It was a gift of a story for the teacher-bashing press. A 16-year-old Polish boy said after two years in the British education system he was only "treading water".

Aleksander Kucharski claimed he was top of the class at his North Tyneside comprehensive. But he claims to have been merely an average pupil at home in Poland.

English pupils were childish and the teachers tested effort rather than knowledge, he said. "In Poland you have to know the names of all the countries, even the rivers. But in England hardly anyone could place Kenya or Poland on the map."

The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh foamed: "It comes to something when Polish kids quit school in England and go home for a decent education."

But can this really be the case?

Aleksander's school, St Thomas More High in North Shields, which has a socially mixed intake, was judged "outstanding" by Ofsted last month. It admits an above average number of pupils with learning difficulties, but 82 per cent scored five top-grade GCSEs.

But Aleksander, the son of two doctors, said he came top of the class in everything, even English. Despite average grades in maths back home, he claimed teachers wrote home to tell his parents he was a "genius".

But Andreas Schleicher, head of analysis at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said the British system was generally better than Poland's. He said Pisa test scores, which enable the OECD to compare schools internationally, reveal better standards in the UK on most counts.

In 2000, the last time fully comparable figures were available, only 6 per cent of Polish pupils scored level 5 in reading, while 16 per cent of British pupils did.

The percentage of pupils with low participation rates was also twice as high in Poland as the UK.

Professor Schleicher said: "Polish and other Eastern European children may do better at accumulating knowledge, but they cannot extrapolate from what they know in other contexts as well as British children.

"The UK is more effective for preparing children for today's society and labour markets where the ability to access information and analyse it is more important."

He said that although he would expect an eastern European to have learnt more sophisticated maths, the country did badly overall. "In science, pupils learn a lot of information but they rarely do experiments," he said.

So why is the British press so eager to believe a 16-year-old boy rather than look at the evidence?

One teacher on The TES website forums wrote this week: "Why are we taking notice of a 16-year-old's opinion of our education system? The Polish children in our area are definitely not all ahead of their English counterparts."

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers said: "Newspapers hostile to the Government are clutching at straws on this. They criticise the idea of pupil voice as trendy and liberal, but if the child's comments fit with their negative agenda, their voice becomes vital."

Margaret Stacey, headteacher at St Anthony's Primary in Slough, Berkshire, which has around 40 per cent Polish pupils, added: "They are like the English children. You get those who are focused and want to learn and others you are chasing up."

Dame Mary McDonald, headteacher of Riverside Primary, another school in North Shields judged as outstanding by inspectors, added: "We have the children of Iranian, Russian, Egyptian professionals and they have been delighted with their education."

Libby Purves, page 27.

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